A Cup of Cold Water
A Reflection for Proper 8A, Matthew 10:40-42, by Laura Grimes
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.
I began this reflection last night somewhere I never expected to be: on a computer in the lobby of a Best Western a short walk from my home, waiting for my husband of nineteen years to pick me up for a Friday night date. The bottle of cold water I took from the small hotel fridge was a source of comfort--physical and emotional alike--after a warm and busy day and in preparation for an exciting and also nervous making evening. It was especially treasured because I recently decided to treat my post-traumatic stress syndrome, long managed with therapy and spiritual resources, with anxiety medication for the first time. The medication is calming, slightly dizzy-making, and can also lead to serious dry mouth, which makes me newly grateful for the unlimited clean, cold, water which was a luxury in the time of Jesus and remains so now for so many people--especially women and children--in this tragically unjust world.
I am in this hotel with one of my most treasured sister disciples--my best friend from college, who babysat the kids during our date. She drove down from Oregon to help us move to a new apartment--just a month or two after a previous move to a place that we thought was perfect but turned out to be so small that, in combination with other stressors, it led to a grave family crisis. My husband is staying in the old place with the kids, and she and I are spending this weekend setting up the new place with skeleton items so we can move in tomorrow after church and manage a gradual move over the course of a couple of weeks. This will also pave the way for my own continued inner work, my husband's tentative but committed beginning of his own, and a renewal and discernment of how our marriage and family will look in this next phase of our life.
Before the hotel, I spent the better part of a week in another place I never expected to be, except as a chaplain: an inpatient psychiatric ward. In the past couple of months, my PTSD was triggered more severely than it has ever been by a combination of factors. The due date of my fourth child, whom I miscarried in the fall, came just a few weeks before the anniversary of the death of my first child, killed in a car accident as a nursing toddler. Both coincided closely with Mother's Day and the anniversary of the death of my grandmother, and in the midst of it all our family moved to a tiny place near the beach that we all felt hopeful about and initially nourished our spirits, but revealed some deep family conflict patterns that need healing and transformation. I had always avoided medication for a variety of reasons: to stay healthy and keep my babies healthy during pregnancy and lactation, to keep my mind clear for my labors as a theologian and clergywoman as well as a mother, and to avoid the deep patterns of addiction in my family of origin. But as the stress mounted at home and the severe anniversary reaction with Julian's due date set in, I realized it was time to seek out an excellent psychiatrist and add medication to the list of healing tools from God that can be appropriately as well as inappropriately used. When that took longer than expected, I made an appointment with my family doctor to begin medication, but had such a severe reaction when I reached the safety of her office that she recommended a brief and immediate phase of inpatient treatment in order to rapidly stabilize me on the right medication.
The days at the hospital were challenging but grace-filled, with a routine that alternately resembled preschool, prison, and a monastery that makes the Trappists look like creampuffs. Spirituality was a major coping technique for many of the patients, many of them in far more acute distress than I; tragically, this was generally seen as further evidence of dysfunction rather than a source of hope and healing. My own explanation that I was a clergywoman with a doctorate in theology was initially disbelieved, and my repeated requests to see a chaplain were disregarded. Fortunately, I was able to find spiritual support through phone calls and eventually a visit for healing prayer and anointing from a local priest acquaintance. I also found strength in weaving remembered bits of the liturgy of the hours throughout my last few days, and reading the bible I gave my son for his first confession during Holy Week, which he entrusted to me when my husband brought him for a brief visit at the beginning of my stay.
I also found tremendous support from the community of little ones in the hospital, the other patients, as well as from some staff members who were able to provide good shepherding within a far-from-ideal system. I had always shared the common stigmatization of mental illness in our culture, and deep fear of people with such disabilities--a living reminder of my own deepest fear: that I would be completely alone and unlovable if and when the brilliant mind I over-identify my self with ever betrayed me. I was amazed to find camaraderie and humor and bravery in the women I shared a room with and the men I shot hoops with in the smoke filled yard on our brief patio breaks. And I marveled at the endurance and courage of people for whom periodic visits to the psych ward are the only vacation and the only retreat they will ever know. Sharing the week with them was a source of deeper conversion, deeper commitment to my own codependence recovery and the transformation of my marriage, and deeper courage to speak the truth of my own struggles with a trauma-induced mental injury that is endemic in our violence-filled world. It also brought about a deep and unexpected hope that that my next CPE unit will, if at all possible, include exploring the daunting but promising world of mental health chaplaincy.
So in this brief snapshot of a place of terror, healing, and resilience, who is the prophet? The disciple? The little one? The righteous person? The giver and the receiver of life-giving water? We all are, of course, in different ways and at different times, and that is the miracle of grace. If any of us were only or always one of the roles we would be tempted to idolatry or despair: to forgetfulness of our beauty and fragility, of our creation in the image of the mothering God who is our loving source, our incarnate redeemer, and our every breath. All glory to her, in the church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen.